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Will 10 Billion People Use Up the Planet’s Resources?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Sunrise Dam Gold Mine -- NASA satellite viewThe human enterprise now consumes nearly 60 billion metric tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and plant materials, such as crop plants and trees for timber or paper. Meanwhile, the seven billionth person on the planet is expected to be born this year—and the human population may reach 10 billion by this century’s end, according to the latest United Nations analysis. Hundreds of millions of people in Europe, North America and Asia live a modern life, which largely means consuming more than 16 metric tons of such natural resources—or more—per person per year. If the billions of poor people living today or born tomorrow consume anything approaching this figure, the world will have to find more than 140 billion metric tons of such materials each year by mid-century, according to a new report from the U.N. Enviromental Programme.

Figuring out how to do more with less is becoming a global necessity.

The international agency derived its consumption figures by simply dividing the total world production figures for such commodities by national population. The good news is that economic prosperity has been rising faster than direct resource consumption. Between 1980 and 2002, the resources required to produce $1,000 worth of consumer goods fell from 2.1 metric tons to just 1.6 metric tons and global per capita income has increased seven-fold. The bad news is that trend will not necessarily continue and—in absolute terms—resource consumption has increased 10-fold since 1900.

Of course, a wide array of national governments and even the international community have committed to "sustainable development," variously defined but essentially attempts to reduce things like energy use or resource extraction that go along with economic growth. Those lofty goals, however, do not match up to facts on the ground: such as an unwillingness on the part of the U.S. to lower its consumption or a hesitance on the part of China to restrain its economic growth.

This is the exact recipe for creating the kind of commodity price spikes the world is already enjoying in everything ranging from essential food crops to the "luxuries" of modern life such as copper for electric wiring or oil for transportation. Increased demand is running up against increased scarcity as well; already it takes three times as much total mining material to produce the same amount of ore as 100 years ago and the era of easy oil is over.

The U.N., for its part, plans to launch an effort similar to the Millennium Development Goals to curb resource waste, greenhouse gas emissions and the like, and Swiss scientists have come up with a plan for a "2,000 watt" per person society, which aims for reducing each European’s energy use by roughly one third.

But that type of approach, in order to be effective, would need to paired with a mindset no longer driven by gadget lust. After all, technological leapfrogging, such as from burning wood for light and heat to lighting a bulb with electricity from photovoltaic panels requires a shift from consumption of biomass to consumption of minerals, which differ only in the type of impact on the planet. Nor is it clear that "decoupling"—rising economic growth paired with reductions in resource consumption—actually is now taking place; most gains to date, such as those in Germany or Japan, may simply have been achieved by outsourcing resource-intensive manufacturing and the like abroad to countries like China.

High prices for commodities, in and of themselves, will drive more efficient use of such resources, but that may not be enough to prevent the total depletion of world’s resources and attendant environmental apocalypse, according to the new UNEP report. Ultimately, the quantity of resources consumed by the nearly 7 billion of us on the planet will need to average out to six metric tons per year per person—a steep cut in the resources currently enjoyed by people in Australia, Canada, Europe, Japan and the U.S. As it stands now, an average American uses 88 kilograms of stuff per day and, all told, our modern gadgets require at least 60 different elements, ranging from the toxic to the treasured, such as gold. These devices fuel the same kind of exploitative and annihilating resource-extraction that has been a hallmark of consumption since at least the ivory craze of Victorian England or the relentless pursuit of whale oil in the 19th century and earlier.

"People believe environmental ‘bads’ are the price we must pay for economic ‘goods,’" said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner in releasing the report on May 12 and calling for an increased effort to decouple economic growth and resource consumption. "However, we cannot, and need not, continue to act as if this trade-off is inevitable."

Image: The Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite captured this true-color image of the Sunrise Dam Gold Mine on December 4, 2009; credit: NASA Earth Observatory





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  1. 1. Alexander Zwissler 2:43 pm 05/25/2011

    Very thoughtful piece. We need to welcome the discussion of population into our dialog on addressing future sustainability. It may cause some discomfort, but nothing like that we will experience if we don’t.

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  2. 2. rickofudall 2:56 pm 05/25/2011

    While I’m grateful for the consumption numbers, the rest of the article is just embellishment on the question of whether 10 people eat more than 5. There’s a Homer Simpson DOH! to be had for the effort.
    Since mankind isn’t smart enough to keep from breeding itself to extinction we have two choices. Let nature take care of it with a mass die off caused by some new plague or develop a birth control system that can be distributed in the water supply and counteracted upon successful application for permission to breed. The former is the more likely, unfortunately.

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  3. 3. Richieo 3:14 pm 05/25/2011

    I agree with the previous comments, what is the point of looking for intelligent life forms on other planets, when it can’t be found on this one?

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  4. 4. Soccerdad 3:16 pm 05/25/2011

    Why single out the US by writing "an unwillingness on the part of the U.S. to lower its consumption". I would say nearly every person in the entire world is unwilling to lower his or her consumption. It’s human nature. The Europeans and Canadians are not more virtuous in this respect.

    At least the US and many other advanced societies are limiting their reproductive rate to replacement levels or lower. If only this virtue of limiting reproduction could be reproduced in the poor countries.

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  5. 5. doug l 3:36 pm 05/25/2011

    The article’s author makes presumptions that the amount of consumption per person is somehow pre-ordained. It isn’t, though the human capacity to share, plan, and use wisely is of course a subject that has endless room for speculation. At one time the limit to human population was based on archaic technology. We will continue to expand our technology and so our ability to expand in population. For example; telephones at one time required vast amounts of copper, now we use very little for that and our communications systems perform at levels beyond even sci-fi writers dreams and people in remote villages have satellites connecting them to their friends and relatives living in what has to seem like luxury across the globe..and yet there is no shortage of cell phones and infact they become even cheaper, more effective and use even less materials. So really the question is about how wise it is to continue as we are now, or is it wiser to start planning for better recyling and smarter uses of our resources beyond what the author of the article seems to realize is possible. My hope is that we leave enough so that ample amounts of habitat for working biological systems can be sustained. As for humans, we will be leaving the planet behind us and enter the space of the solar system eventually and there energy and resources are orders of magnitude greater than we have here on earth’s surface. Getting out of this gravity hole and ito the superabundance of our solar system and beyond is key.

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  6. 6. jimaginator 4:08 pm 05/25/2011

    I cannot help but think of the Fermi Paradox here. Where is everybody? Maybe so-called "intelligent" life reaches a point of technological progress such that consumption of a planets resources starts growing exponentially, and the civilization collapses in on itself. If the rate of change on other worlds is similar to ours, there may be only a few hundred years of consumption before the end. In cosmological terms, a few hundred years is almost nothing, and at the moment, we may be truly alone. Let us hope we value our sentience, and not allow it to be extinguished.

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  7. 7. geojellyroll 4:51 pm 05/25/2011

    Resources can easily sustain 10 billion. China has a population of 1.33 billion….Canada, larger in size has a population of that last ’3′ on the 1.33. Australia even less.

    Th eissue is how much of the natural ecology do we destroy doing it.

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  8. 8. geojellyroll 4:55 pm 05/25/2011

    Just a note…the ‘weight’ factor of resources is silly and meaningless. As a geoloogist I see 60 billion tons as not even a mote on a dot. If the articles said 6 billion or 600 billion it wouold still be meaningless for any conceptual amount other than sensationalism.

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  9. 9. Marc Barre Levesque 5:46 pm 05/25/2011

    "I would say nearly every person in the entire world is unwilling to lower his or her consumption. It’s human nature"

    I kind of agree because as long as nearly every person in the entire world is told that status is to be had if they increase their consumption, they will be unwilling to decrease their consumption.

    -

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  10. 10. rloldershaw 6:10 pm 05/25/2011

    "Will 10 Billion People Use Up the Planet’s Resources?"

    Hmmm, does a bear squat in the woods?

    Perhaps geojellyroll the "geoloogist" would recommend that everyone be given their own private telephone booth to live in and a piece of paper saying "Good Luck"?

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  11. 11. Matthewt69 8:28 pm 05/25/2011

    geojelly – i agree that the billions of tons mentioned are insignificant amounts in geological terms. However, these are meaningful when placed in context. You should know that increasingly large amounts of ore need to be dug up to extract various minerals as it becomes harder to find rich ore bodies. This is a significant economic and ecological fact.

    It is also meaningless to point to the area of a nation alone to determine its carrying capacity. Yes China and India have over a billion people in roughly the same area that Australia has 20 million. But most of Australia is entirely uninhabitable. You may as well tell us that there is plenty of room and fresh water in Antarctica!

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  12. 12. Postman1 10:02 pm 05/25/2011

    Ahhh… comments 12 through 17 have the answers to all the world’s problems!

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  13. 13. Postman1 11:05 pm 05/25/2011

    Thanks for getting rid of the spammers. Now 12 through 17 mat be better.

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  14. 14. jtdwyer 3:00 am 05/26/2011

    Another aspect that must be considered in evaluating the impact of population growth is not just the consumption of limited resources but their elimination through contamination. China may now be leading the world in this regard, in the interest of economic development. Also, the depletion of potable water and seafood are, I think especially critical, although I’m sure we can always buy bottled water from Nestle’s…

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  15. 15. oldvic 3:37 am 05/26/2011

    Apart from all the usual reasons to live sustainably, we should consider the long term instability of the planet. A world living near the edge of its resources will still face a very serious problem when the next ice age comes around or once a big asteroid falls on it (which may happen 5 minutes from now, you know).

    As we are today, we’ve become a big, fat, slow-moving target for any environmental disruption that comes our way. We need to be nimble, adaptable, and to give ourselves adequate safety margins in order to respond to such crises.

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  16. 16. Poppa beer 7:54 am 05/26/2011

    Why not ease the load on the worlds finite resources and start to recycle people as they die off? Just think of all the valuable and renewable potential simply wasted and adding to the world’s burgeoning polution problems. This would help to ease two of the Earth’s major dilemmas at one stroke.

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  17. 17. JRWermuth 10:11 am 05/26/2011

    This is not news. E.O.Wilson’s 2002 tome The Future of Life more than adequately described the future of life if not checked. While his passage about the white rhinoceros runs on a bit long, it makes for a good read. There is a tasteful collage of extinct species in the front that makes for a good conversational piece to interest others into discussing the topic.

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  18. 18. ironjustice 10:48 am 05/26/2011

    Will 10 Billion People Use Up the Planet’s Resources?

    It can only be really answered if we use the SAME ‘marker’ to ascertain what AMOUNT of the planet’s resources does each SINGLE person uses ? We have quite a difference between the amount of resources used by say someone in the Andes , someone in the Congo , someone in the Burmese jungle or someone in downtown New York ? IF the global village were to decide what each person NEEDS then I believe we would all be eating well in a warm house with proper healthcare and education. IF those were the ‘criteria’ FOR use of the planet’s resources then yes but if having two boats and a huge massive house PLUS eating well in a warm house with proper healthcare then no. Just the way it is. Imho.

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  19. 19. anumakonda.jagadeesh 11:31 am 05/26/2011

    Excellent post. Here is an interesting note on the subject:
    Population growth and resource depletion
    by Jennifer M. Wenner, Geology Department, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
    More people = More babies
    . The mathematics of exponential growth govern the prediction of population growth. In some cases, you may want to point out that students may have heard of exponential growth in other contexts, such as compound interest or the spread of viral disease. The rate of population growth at any given time can be written:
    dN/dT = rN

    Where:
    *r is the rate of natural increase and is usually expressed as a percentage (birth rate – death rate)
    *t a stated interval of time, and
    *N is the number of individuals in the population at a given instant.
    The equation above is a differential equation and may not be appropriate for some introductory courses –
    The algebraic solution to this differential equation is
    rt
    N=Noe

    where:
    *N0 is the starting population
    *N is the population after
    *a certain time, t , has elapsed,
    *r is the rate of natural increase expressed as a percentage (birth rate – death rate) and
    *e is the constant 2.71828… (the base of natural logarithms).
    A plot of this equation looks something like the plot on the right. Population grows exponentially – if the rate of natural increase (r) doesn’t change. The variable r is controlled by human behavior as described below.
    Essential to understanding the mathematics of population growth is the concept of doubling time. Doubling time is the time it takes for population to double and it is related to the rate of growth. When the population doubles, N = 2N0. Thus the equation becomes
    ln 2/r = t
    or
    0.69/r = t; where r is the rate and t is the doubling time.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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  20. 20. Odinsravens 7:59 pm 05/26/2011

    Excellent article however so wide of the mark

    a few points

    1.Deepest mine to date 3km give or take – earths crust 20km again give or take

    2.Sea mining we have not even looked at this technology there be 70 percent of the surface of the earth

    3.Space as everyone is moving to mega cities well space is not a problem

    So thing the article is premature 20 billion might test some limits of technology though !

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  21. 21. jtdwyer 7:11 am 05/27/2011

    The world population of nearly 7 billion has quadrupled since 1900, will soon have tripled since 1950 and has nearly doubled since 1970.

    This is by far the largest human population that’s ever existed on this or any other little planet. We’re currently running an enormous high stakes experiment to determine whether we can survive the next 500 year drought in the Western U.S. I think your confidence in technological solutions (and the advancements of just the past few decades) is unwarranted. There have been several ‘dark ages’ in human history that we’re aware of – it wouldn’t be the first time if all we now know was soon forgotten. Best wishes to us all, but beware the unexpected!

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  22. 22. anumakonda.jagadeesh 8:01 am 05/28/2011

    Excellent post.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Link to this
  23. 23. anumakonda.jagadeesh 8:08 am 05/28/2011

    Excellent post.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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  24. 24. Steve3 6:03 pm 06/2/2011

    This is by far the largest human population that’s ever existed on this or any other little planet..

    How can you be so sure?

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  25. 25. kristi276 7:42 pm 06/2/2011

    When the 7th billion person is born, how will humanity save itself; or will we? The issue of energy conservation and material/resource use has been an issue since the 1960s, but never really taken seriously till this decade when climate warming became an issue. We are reaching the point where the natural resources can not keep up with the population, but what can humanity do in order to put things right. I had said that if the Feds were really interested in alternative energy, then, by example, every federal, state, and city government building would be retrofitted with solar. Talk is cheap. Why is that we know the problems but no one comes up with the solutions. We have a large solar system to inhabit and an asteroid belt to mine. We have not gone boldly into the night, for we tremble in our beds afraid of the shadows in the dark. Yes! Space is a harsh and formidable environment, just because it is hard does not mean that we should not do so. Why does a mountain climber scale a mountain? Because it is there. Why should we inhabit the moon, because it is part of our planet. If people had the chance to live on the moon, who would go? Luna or bust.

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  26. 26. kristi276 7:55 pm 06/2/2011

    With all of the talk of global warming, overpopulation, depletion of natural resources and the possibility of the four horsemen, it seems that in truth people don’t really care. Are we really interested in saving humankind, or do we not care enough to care?

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  27. 27. jtdwyer 3:43 am 06/4/2011

    I hesitate to mention this. IMO, overpopulation is a significant causal factor in the depletion of natural resources and global warming. You mention of the four horsemen caused me to briefly entertain the thought of how overpopulation could be related to the apocalypse in a religious context: perhaps soon all the human souls that have ever existed will once again reside on the Earth, in preparation for the Rapture… Please, don’t anyone start a new religion – I just couldn’t resist the logical connection! Sorry!

    To respond to your question, I think the critical first step is to bring overpopulation into public discussion. It’s now the invisible 6.9 billion pound gorilla in the room – people know it’s there, but can’t recognize the magnitude of the problem.

    The population has doubled since I was 20 years old in 1970. To appreciate the impact of that, imagine that it could double again over the next 40 years, making the population nearly 14 billion in 2050.

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  28. 28. Sandy Kramer 1:01 pm 06/12/2011

    Malthus was debunked more than a century ago, yet the variants of his theory never die off. Populations diminish, famines take their toll, yet somehow, earth abides.

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  29. 29. Sandy Kramer 1:02 pm 06/12/2011

    Here! Here!

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  30. 30. jrvz 6:47 am 09/5/2011

    I don’t see any mention of one of the (partial) solutions to the problem, which is to limit population growth.

    There are non-coercive methods of reducing the birth rate, mainly involving the upgrading of the status of women, and educating them about birth & birth control. Governments should make it their business to concentrate on especially the education of women about having children, bringing them up etc as well as birth control. They should also set up clinics to assist women in these areas.

    Of course there are also coercive methods of lowering the birth rate such as Chinas one woman one child policy, but I dont think this type of policy is sustainable in the long run.

    Another area which does not seem to get enough attention is the use of totally renewable resources such as solar energy. In fact Planet Earth is very largely powered by an enormous nuclear fusion plant – Sol. The plant resources touted as “renewable” in fact derive their energy from the sun, and all the coal, oil and gas comes originally from plants. So it makes sense to use the available energy from the sun directly.

    Another huge resource of energy is buried deep beneath us – geothermal energy. It involves deep drilling, but the oil companies are improving their deep drilling techniques all the time, and I feel that they should also be looking at geothermal energy.

    Both these resources are very green. They create no greenhouse gases, which is not true of other resources such as ethanol derived from plant material for example. It may be that most of the carbon dioxide produced by burning ethanol is absorbed by the next crop of plants, but I doubt if the process is 100% efficient, and in any case it leaves a “stock” of carbon dioxide in the air.

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  31. 31. tritium13 1:53 pm 09/8/2011

    What the author failed to explain to the fools who read this blog is that the amount of material consumed is only less than a tenth of the story.
    It takes over ten times the amount of raw material to produce the number sighted as the yearly consumption by the global population.
    Furthermore, bronze age fools ,who think its their duty to fill the HABITABLE SPACE on this planet with people will pay no attention to anything anyone says , no matter how its worded.
    Those people are right, we do not have to worry about how many people are on this earth, the amount of AFFORDABLE food, clean water and AFFORDABLE energy will cause a population crash of epic size.
    Unfortunately, it will be a miserable way for so many to die and if they have nuclear weapons , then they might also use them.
    This is the most inhumane way of limiting population imaginable.
    Instead of encouraging nations with a big carrot and small stick approach that would be humane , we are going to see famine, war and pestilence just like in the good old book of revelations.

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  32. 32. tritium13 1:56 pm 09/8/2011

    .

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